Wednesday, March 16, 2022

Digging into Native Americans’ history in the Adirondacks

native american pottery shards

A young boy on my tour last year asked a simple question, “were there Indians here?” With nowhere else to go, I repeated the worn-out line that Native American people used the Adirondacks as hunting grounds. It was an unsatisfying response, for both of us. As Sagamore’s historian, I knew as much as that kid about 98% of the area’s human timeline.

I quickly found a small but growing body of research on Native American history in central and northern New York State. I also learned that these topics, this knowledge, is not new. From my perspective, I could dig into books and articles about the academic pursuit of knowledge. But, Native Americans have been telling their own stories from the beginning. To properly answer that boy’s question, Sagamore needs to welcome the perspectives of the people about whom we’re speaking.

The Eurocentric university-based perspective and the Native American oral history perspective are often presented in concert, each welcoming the other. I reached out to John Fadden at the Six Nations Iroquois Cultural Center in Onchiota, New York. John’s father Ray Fadden and his family, who lived in the Mohawk community of Akwesasne, opened the center in 1954 so that the general public “may acquire the knowledge needed to better understand the history, culture, contemporary realities, and the potential future of Native Nations.” The center remains northern New York’s leading source for discovering a variety of perspectives on Indigenous people.

A projectile point and a cutting tool found near the shore of Tupper Lake were both dropped shortly after the last ice age when the region was still a frozen tundra, well over 10,000 years ago. People were in the Adirondacks before it was a forest.

Jennifer Birch, archeologist and associate professor of anthropology at the University of Georgia, who studies northern Iroquoian life, told her Zoom audience that when the chronology is understood, “the plot will emerge.”

Mainstream teaching and popular culture tend to place Native American history into two compartments, pre- and post-European contact. Except pre-contact stretches back more than a decamillennium (today’s new word.) That vast timeline can seem vacant, but it’s merely unrecorded by archeology. From the mainstream perspective, the millennia just fly by. But a lot can happen in 10,000 years.

As the climate warmed and the forests grew, people’s toolmaking and seasonal movements changed in ways that can be theorized or, when artifacts are found, identified.

What anthropologists call the Eastern Woodland Period started about 3,000 years ago when, some think, pots were first fired and early cultivation began. These activities suggest a more settled village life. Scant evidence proves that people were here, in the Adirondacks, largely throughout these vast periods of development. Were they living here, or just hunting? Or to them, were those things the same?

Evidence reveals that in the last thousand years, Native American villages became larger and longer established. Dr. Birch and her colleagues have excavated palisaded settlements with as many as a few dozen longhouses; crops of maize, beans and squash; and ritualized burials made nearby. These developments indicate social and political hierarchies and more specific tribal identities. Of course, these were the people who first heard the clang of European metal and the boom of gunpowder.

The Iroquoian settlements identified on Dr. Birch’s maps are primarily located in the Mohawk and St. Lawrence Valleys. The absence of longhouse settlements in the Adirondacks only indicates that scholars haven’t looked there yet. It’s much harder to find ancient post holes and fire pits in the boulder-strewn mountains. When I asked about it, Dr. Birch replied, “people lived everywhere, all the time.”

The “hunting grounds” theory springs from the idea that it’s just too cold in the Adirondacks, and the soil is too thin compared to the surrounding valleys. Why not live where it’s easier? Yet since their arrival in the Adirondacks, Europeans have reached down to pick up Native artifacts. The Indians must have just been passing through, the shivering whites concluded.

Curt Stager, professor of natural sciences at Paul Smith College, writes:

Persistent doubts that people lived in the Adirondacks may have more to do with semantics than data. They reflect whatever we mean by ‘live.’ … Through most of human history people moved seasonally over broad geographic areas they considered home, and the same was true in the North Country. It was the only way to survive without depleting local resources.

People have been living in cold climates for a very long time. To doubt that Natives could tolerate Adirondack winters says more about one’s own limitations than theirs. Stager writes, “…absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.”


Native American Guide Mitchell Sabattis at Indian Lake

Native American guide Mitchell Sabattis/Almanack file photo

Contact with Europeans quickly changed the lives of Native peoples. The newcomers brought metal tools, weapons and marvels like fine cloth and glass mirrors that the Native people desired. The whites wanted beaver pelts, so trade relationships formed as well as new rivalries. At times, the Adirondacks became a battleground between Indigenous tribes who competed to obtain riches from the competing Dutch, French, and English settlers. Sides were taken.

The great northeastern confederacies lost influence following the American Revolution. The Adirondacks were roughly divided by the new “owners,” intent on removing timber and minerals. The Abenaki and Iroquois did what they had to, working in lumber camps or mines. Some guided white vacationers, some sold crafts and woodsy trinkets, and others performed traditional entertainments.

Mainstream Americans’ impressions of wilderness changed as industrialization took many from frontier farms to smelly cities. So, too, did their impressions of the indigenous Americans. As their struggles to endure were overwhelmed, it became popular to cast them less as threats and more as romantic links to the vanishing frontier.

Camps Sagamore and Uncas are both named after Native American characters from The Last of the Mohicans, a novel published by James Fenimore Cooper in 1826, some 70 years before these camps were built. Set in 1757, the book is a fanciful narrative of comradery and conflict between whites and Natives in the throes of the French and Indian War.

William West Durant supposed that by evoking Cooper’s book, his woodsy camps would draw the attention of wealthy buyers. In 1902, just after purchasing Sagamore from Durant, Alfred Vanderbilt built a new bark and twig covered guesthouse and called it the Wigwam. This demonstrated that Vanderbilt, too, was happy to appropriate Native American names and terms to help romanticize his own foray into the wilderness.

Cooper’s Native American characters fall into two categories: benevolent forest philosophers or dark killers intent on eliminating all invaders. These clichéd characters can still be seen in western movies.


In the 1890s, Raquette Lake resident Alvah Dunning cut down a huge cedar tree next to his new shanty at the Brown’s Tract Inlet, next to the current village. Under the roots, Dunning found evidence of an ancient bed of coals and three small shards of pottery, each with decorative incised lines. The tree was over 300 years old, so the broken pots were made by people who had never known Europeans.

At Sagamore, we try to help our guests imagine the past, including the more distant past, both vividly and accurately. This simple scenario is written to correspond with recent scholarship:

The village stands on a steep hill above the river. For years your uncle has stashed a dugout cedar canoe and a few cooking jars beside the primary inlet to what would, centuries later, be called Raquette Lake, located four days north of the longhouses.

This is the third autumn that you have arrived with a small group of family and companions, men and women, to hunt large game which has been scarce in the lowlands. The route and the region have become familiar. Everyone will pitch in to reconstruct two bark structures, one for shelter and the other for smoking the meat which you will carry back for winter stores.

You’ve been running for hours driving deer, autumn colors splendid, and you pause on a high rocky bluff on the western shore of a nearby lake, just to glimpse its beauty.

Outlook Rock is easily seen from Sagamore’s boathouse dock. In a thousand years (Great Camps aside) not much has changed about the view.


For Sagamore, learning about the site’s Native American past is just getting started. We are grateful to John Fadden of the Six Nations Iroquois Cultural Center in Onchiota for sending research links that included two published articles, information from which is peppered throughout this article:

  • A History in Fragments, Lynn Woods, Adirondack Life, Nov/Dec 1994
  • Hidden Heritage, Curt Stager, Adirondack Life, June 2017

A note about artifacts you might find on your Adirondack journeys: Please leave them where you find them, untouched. Be sure to note the location, snap some photos, and notify the NYS museum.

Image at top: Arpod Gerster, drawings of pot shards found by Alvah Dunning, c.1895.

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Robert Engel is historian at Great Camp Sagamore in Raquette Lake.

11 Responses

  1. James M Schaefer says:

    Evidence of hunting activities by Native Americans in the Adirondacks have been documented over the past hundred years. Temporary camps–fire pits, flint chips, arrowheads, scrapers (for hides) are reliable evidence of the primary role of native males. The only remains that stand the test of time are those sorts of artifacts. Systematic explorations have been carried out on lake shores, islands, knolls, rock shelters, caves, near springs, waterfalls and other places likely to provide game such as deer, bear, turkey, grouse, and rabbits. Some locations provided relief from the perennial black flies (knolls). Prime hunting places have only occasionally provided evidence of fire stones and hunting tools. The existence of so few temporary hunting or war party encampments suggest that the occupants were only periodically away from their village longhouses, warm hearths and food. It is the villages that in the years prior to European contact were stockaded for defense against enemies including internal warring factions of the Iroquois. There, while the corn-beans and squash continued to grow and the houses retained a degree of protection from weather extremes a village may have lasted a decade or so before needing to be moved to another nearby location. For these reasons too it appears unlikely that “villages” or semi-permanent settlements with their extended matrilineal families would have been attempted in the Adirondack mountains. Such settlements required fertile areas for growing crops, materials for building and maintaining domestic structures. What’s more a substantial settlement would have been needed to carry on the normal cycle of cultural traditions — ceremonies, marriages, coming of age rituals, funerals etc. Group activities were a core feature of the Iroquois. Men were expected to hunt and seasonally, women were expected to harvest commodities — berries, grains, syrup, sometimes away from the village fields of staple “Three Sisters”crops. The division of labor worked well — men hunting in the woods; women tending to the crops, home fires and foraging seasonal crops.
    Native experts, regional and local archeologists, historians and professional anthropologists over the past 150 years have come to similar conclusions. We always keep an open mind, but it appears that hunting along with the use rivers and cross-country trails to get places were the primary activities of Native Americans in the Adirondacks — not year-round settlements.

  2. George L says:

    You mention a 10,000 year old projectile point and cutting tool found near Tupper Lake.

    Have any other such items been found anywhere in the Adks?


    • mark d walp says:

      An Otter Creek point (6,000 – 4,300 B.P.) was found just below Friends Lake at a dig organized by David Starbuck in the the 1960’s. It is in our Chestertown museum. I used to hunt that area from my house when I moved here in the 70’s, and there were mysterious rock piles in the woods near what was called “split Rock”. One old timer suggested they might have been related to a native American maple syrup operation.

      • Kayel Conklin says:

        You are absolutely right my great grandfather Coleman a Native American passed down stories to my family. I have photos of him dressed at friends lake with a sign; come see floating rock, Mica mine rock free sample, Indian rock mines

  3. Greg Schaefer says:

    Gerster’s book is a wonderful account of his times at Raquette Lake. His first name is Arpad, not Arpod according to my book.

  4. Phil Terrie says:

    Seems odd not to mention Melissa Otis’s invaluable Rural Indigenousness: A History of Iroquoian and Algonquian Peoples of the Adirondacks, published in 2018 by Syracuse University Press.

  5. Stephen Rose says:

    We need more of this. And we need more Indigenous understanding and leadership for the future of the Adirondacks. Former hunting lands or not, white people need to admit this is stolen land and reflect on what can only be called genocide of the original peoples.


    Were Elk hunted in the Adirondacks pre-Columbian? What other animals were part of the food supply of the indigenous people?

    • Andre says:

      If I am not mistaken – Buffalo were as well. From what I read that’s how the natives used to find salt… They would trail the Buffalo who would go to lick the salt. But I don’t know if they were in the ADK’s.. That was western NY.

  7. Jay OHern says:

    Have there been any Native American relics discovered on the Indian Clearing (Big Plains) Moose River Plains.

  8. Cassandra Miller says:

    Are there any records of tribes that closed down between 1950’s – 1960’s? Was there a known protocal during that time if a native impregnated a European and mixed? Last but not least would any of those tribes keep record of children adopted out? I am asking for my father who was adopted out. Father 100% tribal member and mother European. He was born on the reservation then adopted out with no information. I am trying to find out any helpful information.

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